Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
Paradise Regained is composed of four books averaging about five hundred lines of blank verse each; the poem, therefore, contains more than two thousand lines. The Gospel of Luke, John Milton’s principal source, is contained in seventeen verses spread over two chapters. Although Milton regarded this “brief epic” as his greatest masterpiece, that evaluation has not generally been shared by his critical or popular readership. Unlike his internationally acclaimed epic Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Paradise Regained lacks both an intense conflict between worthy moral antagonists and the narrative action such conflicts afford. To many, the novel’s Satan seems to have been pathetically reduced to an incompetent schemer who is no match for the stoical Jesus of Nazareth, who dominates the extended debates occupying most of the epic. Yet if Milton was not wholly wrong about his final work, in what does its greatness consist?
Although lacking some of the complexity of its forerunner, Paradise Regained can be breathtaking in its stark poetic simplicity and in its profound narrative expansion of Luke’s brief account of Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness. To appreciate its narrative “action” is thus to understand how Milton uses a dialogical form of conflict drawn from the book of Job to illuminate and expand these three themes. Yet it is also to understand how Job-like this Jesus is, who is not merely an omniscient being who must “inevitably” triumph over Satan but a man undergoing extreme trial without assistance from friends or family, including his heavenly father. Confronted by the most powerful opponent he or any human will ever face, his success becomes a virtual summa of the virtues of the rational Christian, the person who diligently employs well-disciplined mental energies in conjunction with a well-grounded faith in divine providence. The temptations Jesus is required to face are lack of faith, hunger, desire for glory, desire to overthrow the enemies of his people by violence, and pride in being declared the beloved Son of God. Milton’s anti-Trinitarianism allows him to present Jesus as the highest type of human being, the true Son of God whose example has something to teach all people, a being divine only in being fully and perfectly human. Like the rest of humankind, he can demonstrate his love of God only by maintaining his faith, hope, and integrity, which in turn empower his love of others and of self.
The contrast to this all-embracing love is the all-enslaving hate of Satan and his cohorts, who have by now become less like the mighty archangels of Paradise Lost and more like the spirits of worldly ambition, pride, and greed who deceive the faithful and the wicked alike. What they lack in epic splendor is compensated for in psychological realism, which portrays in them all the qualities of those who would achieve earthly glory only for the purposes of domination and exploitation. As he himself gradually realizes, Jesus is their moral opposite, the one who would subdue the world by first subduing himself and his passions, the egoistic cravings that would render his rule despotic rather than liberating. The more compassionate and less stoical aspect of Jesus’ refusal to yield to any of Satan’s temptations is dramatically highlighted by scenes that portray his devastated followers sadly “missing him thir joy so lately found,” who they “began to doubt, and doubted many days.” Even Mary begins to doubt, but as the maternal equivalent of her son, she “with thoughts/ Meekly compos’d awaited the fulfilling.” This behavior was rewarded once Jesus “unobserv’d/ Home to his Mother’s house private return’d.” Such success depends upon a heroism neither military...
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nor tragic but fundamentally individual and lyric—something available to anyone who sees personal ethics as the clue to social responsibility.
In a sense, then, Milton challenges the reader to reject mainstream heroic values in favor of the humble ethos with which Jesus conquered. Although primarily a Christian message, this epic trial of the worldly principles of leadership and learning can challenge anyone to examine how best to exercise them. Confronted with the imminent collapse of the great social programs inherited from the Enlightenment—confidence in the universal progress of knowledge, education, and democracy as solutions to all human ills—the postmodern reader can gain a rare opportunity to examine an earlier and ultimately quite different solution to the problems of the individual in society, a moral synthesis of classical and Christian values grounded in Milton’s staunchly libertarian belief in the inalienable freedoms of conscience and action. Just as his epic debates refuse to separate individual action from social consequences, they also refuse to privilege any single side of those debates. Both the “high Authority” of God’s prophets and the “inspired Oracles” of Delphi can cause doubt, disbelief, or self-promotion in those who fail to understand them correctly. The alternative is to realize that “so much bounty is in God, such grace,/ That who advance his glory, not thir own,/ Them he himself to glory will advance.”
However, what, ultimately, is divine glory? This goodness beyond thought is revealed in the fourth book, which, if read otherwise, appears anticlimactic. Here Jesus’ temptation is not all the kingdoms and accomplishments of the world offered by Satan but his means of gaining them. Urging that ends justify means, he sees the successful leader as seizing any occasion to achieve his destiny. In reply, Jesus redefines that destiny as the individual’s own ability to observe proper proportion, ignoring not only the “false portents” of success but any unearned or premature fame, which in the much earlier poem “Lycidas” (1645), Milton had described as “that last infirmity of Noble mind.” By demonstrating the process whereby that last infirmity is overcome, Paradise Regained can be read as a worthy testament to a poet whose entire life was a struggle to balance the temptations of literary and political power.